The turn from October to November has always felt like a kind of tightening to me, a turning of the calendar screws. Tonight darkness will fall an hour earlier than last night, the days that have already been feeling too short now feeling even shorter still–right at the time they seem to fill with more demands. Every year I tell myself to savor October, the last days when I come home to sunny daylight, the calm before the holiday storm, and every year it flies by as swiftly as the leaves fall. Last week, yet another in which I didn’t finish the laundry by Sunday night and it is still lingering in the basket this morning, a full week’s worth of days later…
…Damn, I got up to let the dog out, and then remembered I needed to unload the dishwasher, and then I responded to a Snap from my daughter, and then I let the dog in, and now I can’t remember what I was even going to say in this sentence.
Which is fitting, no? Back in January, I thought I might be able to change my experience of time–make it feel as if it were moving more slowly–if I slowed down and took more notice of things. If I savored it, I guess. Savoring, though, doesn’t look the way I tend to fantasize it looking. It isn’t long, sunny afternoons on the couch with a good book, or hours working on a crafty project, or slow dinners with a group of close friends, or hours to linger in a coffee shop with a decadent pastry and a beautiful beverage. Not for me, most of the time, anyway.
More often, savoring is something that happens in the moments between: When I see the spider web illuminated by sun on my way to the car in the morning, or when I notice how pretty the herbs from the garden look when I toss them into the pot with a roast, or when, on my way to let the dogs out for the morning, I feel grateful for the twinkle lights I never took off the ficus after the holidays last year, and the way they softly light the early morning darkness.
Sometimes, it’s just the smallest of comforts: the delightful surprise that is grilled cheese on focaccia on a night I get home too tired to really cook; the tiny thrill I feel every morning when I open the door to the flowers still blooming that I planted in June; the warm feeling I get seeing my tired old dogs curled up on a blanket my great-grandmother crocheted that I keep in a basket I once used to carry my tiny preemie babies from room to room.
The best I have been able to do, when it comes to savoring, is to stop for 30 seconds and take a quick photo when I see something for which I feel grateful. When I take the time to notice everyday things, and then spend a few minutes at the end of the month looking at them, I realize that the days and weeks that have passed so quickly were actually full of small wonders. I realize that although it might feel as if I somehow missed the month, I didn’t. Not really. And it changes the story I might otherwise tell myself about what the month (or season or year) has been.
Sometimes I tell others that I really do love my new house, but I wish it didn’t have so much yard. I have said that I spend so much time working in it I never really get to enjoy it the way I’d like to. (See: fantasies, a few paragraphs back.) But when I scrolled through my October photos and saw the nest I found when pruning back the rose bushes, I didn’t remember how sore my body felt at the end of that day, or how frustrated I was when I ran out of time to finish the job and had to leave it–like so many things–hanging. Instead, I remembered the thrill of seeing the nest, feeling like I’d found buried treasure; how carefully I extracted it from the brambly tangle; the cawing and swooping of nearby crows when I pulled it free and sensed that everything is more connected than I know; the minutes I spent marveling at how tiny its bed was.
Right now, writing these words, I realize how much my joy and wonder and savoring happens not in spite of all the tasks filling my days, but in many cases because of them. If not for the overgrown roses, I’d never have seen the nest. On a different Sunday afternoon, I mowed the lawn for what I am sure will be the last time of the season, pleased with how tidy and green it once again looked, only to wake after a windy night to find it, as I rushed out the door to work, covered with leaves. It startled me, the change, and delighted me for some reason I still don’t really understand. Maybe it was in the contrast between what had been and what was that I found something to savor, or the way the leaves looked like tossed confetti. It doesn’t matter; what matters is that the moment was a gift that would not have been possible without the chore that felt like it was keeping me from life’s gifts.
Three days into November, I am still a little sad to see October go, and still feeling a little trepidation about the holiday season now upon us. There’s a line to walk in these musings, some place between too much and not enough. I wish I could figure out some trick to both make time move a little more slowly AND still fill it with good things. I suspect, though, that it doesn’t work that way, and that the only way time is going to move slowly again is for there to be too much of it, which will mean that my life is empty of the things I now love–family, friends, meaningful work, and good enough health to have all those things filling my days.
Last week was a tough one. Not hard in any life-wracking sense, just tough. No illness or tragedy or loss. Just one of those weeks in which your work seems maybe mostly futile, a game of whack-a-mole you’re never going to win, or a dike springing 10 times the holes you have fingers to fill. One of those weeks in which your to-do list becomes so much longer than your capacity to get ‘er done that you abandon any idea you had of being able to stay on top of things.
There’s a gift in that, you know. When doing All the Things is still within the realm of the possible, most of us push ourselves hard to do them. We give up such things as sleep, healthy meals, and time with friends and family. Because All the Things are Really, Really Important, and we want to do them. On Wednesday, however, I realized I’d crossed the border into the realm of the impossible (despite having given up all three of those things in the previous few days), which is why I gave myself permission to leave early Thursday afternoon for library conference starting early Friday morning at the Oregon coast. I mean, if I couldn’t get it all done anyway, there wasn’t really anything to lose, right?
I treated myself to a late lunch at a favorite spot, and I hit the road heading west in full daylight.
And when I got to where I was going, I saw this:
I wasn’t ready for my conference presentation on Saturday, but I did not hole up in my room to get ‘er dun. I threw on my sneakers and high-tailed it to the beach, clinging to the words my friend and colleague Heather had given me that morning: “Give it all to the waves. Let them carry it out to sea for you.”
That is a thing easier said than done.
I was a little melancholy, despite the glorious sun and waves and sand. Maybe, truth be told, because of them. There was a time when I would’ve gone to my conference with a companion, and it hurt to be in such a place alone, with no one to whom I could exclaim, “Isn’t this wonderful!”
There was a family on the beach, their little ones digging with shovels and laughing, their drawers droopy with wet sand, and I missed the children I once got to raise and take to beaches on cold, sunny autumn days.
There was a small dog racing in circles, his whole body quivering with joy, and I remembered how our now-geriatric dogs used to run in just the same way at our river, paws and sand flying.
It was all so gorgeous it hurt, and I started wondering (of course) if those children would have such beaches to stroll on 50 years from now, when they will be my age, or if they would be able to get to them even if they are still here, in the same ways they are now. I wondered if there will still be gulls crying in the air, and mussels clinging to rocks, the same tides going in and out. Even though I know the oceans will likely exist in some form long beyond any of us on the beach will, everything felt fragile and transitory and doomed.
That is when I saw it: A flash of pink in the distance. I took a deep breath (how many friends have reminded me in how many moments to just breath?) and kept walking toward it.
As I got closer to the pink, I saw it was a sprite of a girl, a dashing, dancing speck who clearly was not thinking of planetary change or the passing of things. She was chasing a seagull. Or, rather, dancing with one. It was clear that the gull did not mind her machinations, would flap its wings just enough to get beyond her reach–which was just enough to keep her thinking that maybe, maybe she might catch it.
When the gull flapped, her arms flapped, too, and her legs lifted from the ground, almost like the bird’s shadow or echo. I breathed, and watched the girl and the gull, and listened to the waves, and let it all go: the frustrations, the loneliness, the longing, the fear of future loss.
Heading back to my room and my presentation prep, I passed an older man, alone like me. He caught my eye, smiled, said, “Isn’t it a lovely evening for a walk?”
“It’s gorgeous!” The words burst from me. I am not a words-bursting-from kind of person, usually. I tend not to gush over gorgeousness. I knew the words weren’t just about the beauty of the sun or ocean: It was all of the evening’s beauty, and all of us in it, sharing it.
I was so grateful for that man, a fellow human who could see what I was seeing and who was in it with me, even if only fleetingly. My gratitude even included all the things troubling me; though I’d let them go, they hadn’t disappeared, and I could see then that all of dark, hard things were part of what made the beautiful parts as shiny as they were. There’s something about knowing that everything will pass–that the children will grow, the dogs will slow, the girl will become too self-conscious to dance in public with the birds, and that the man and I will die–that makes it all precious: It’s knowing we can’t catch and hold all the things we love any more than that girl could catch her bird, but that, like her, we try to, anyway.
And isn’t that, really, what the moles and dikes and all our frantic efforts with them are about, too? Trying to catch and protect and preserve what we find beautiful, feeling hopeless when we realize we can’t in the ways we want.
Today, Sunday, as I’m back at home getting ready for another week–the washer running and the counter filled with groceries that need to be put away–I can see that I didn’t quite understand what letting the waves have my worries would mean. I gave them by troubles, yes, but the waves didn’t carry them away. Instead, they washed them clean and tossed them back up on the sand–right where I could reach down to pick them up and put them back in my pocket again, which is right where they belong.
In my very first job out of college, I was an editorial assistant for an educational publishing company. We imported reading programs from New Zealand (which, I was told, had the highest literacy rates in the world), and my job was to “Americanize” the texts for the US market.
That meant the obvious–changing “colour” to “color,” and the like. It also meant sanitizing stories that would be considered too dark or grim or scary for US schoolchildren. I learned that in New Zealand, schools didn’t shy away from sad or hard things in their reading program stories because they believed children needed to learn about fear and how to address it. They felt that facing it and working through it was the way to build strength and resiliency.
I’ve thought about that a lot over the years, but especially lately. As I watched Greta Thurnberg address the United Nations last week, it was awfully hard not to feel as if we are all now living through the plot line of an apocalyptic (probably YA) novel. Because, let’s face it: We probably are. We are aren’t too far past the exposition stage of the narrative, I suppose, and it’s hard to know exactly how this story will play out, but the action is rising quickly. You know shit’s getting real when the birds start dying and the oceans start warming. In those narratives, that’s always a portent of worse to come.
Like the New Zealanders, I’ve never shied away from stories about hard things. I’ve needed those works to help me through them. If anything is my religion, it’s probably literature. So, today, I thought I’d share some of my favorites from a genre I think of as Extinction Lit, stories about people facing and living through mass extinction events. Because–and this is important–in these stories there are always people who live through.
Feed isn’t quite an extinction novel, but it’s the next-closest thing. (Technically, it’s cyberpunk.) In 2002 M.T. Anderson pretty much imagined a world with smart phones embedded into our bodies–before smartphones were even a thing. I haven’t read it since the early 2000s, so I don’t know how it might have aged, but I’ve thought of it often since 2008ish. This is YA, so steer clear if you don’t like teen-age protagonists.
I picked up Station Eleven in an airport, before it became kind of a phenomenon. I thought it would be a fluffy airplane read, but it wasn’t. This one isn’t quite an extinction story, either, but it is about the collapse of civilization via disease that takes out almost everyone. This is my favorite one on the list, crushing in all the right ways because it shows you how beautiful we are. Or at least, can be.
The Age of Miracles is the book that prompted this post; I read it last week. I picked it up because during the summer I read the author’s latest novel (The Dreamers). Both are about inexplicable events that tear at the fabric of society, but I’m linking to Age of Miracles because it is more extinction-y that The Dreamers. (But I thought The Dreamers was a better book.) As Goodreads reviews note, this isn’t a book for the hardcore sci-fi fan (which I’m not). This is an adult title that skews YA; the narrator is a young woman in her 20s looking back at what happened to the world when she was 11 and the earth’s rotation began slowing.
Life As We Knew It is another one (YA) I haven’t read in years, but unlike a lot of other books it hasn’t faded from my memory. Like Age of Miracles, what intrigues me about this one is watching the relatively gradual change that comes to the characters’ way of life. Things change in a pretty big way all at once, but in many ways life keeps going on as it had before the big change event. It reminds me that even in the midst of calamity, things can seem almost normal–can actually be almost normal. It was the first in what became a series, but I tried and couldn’t stick with the second book.
Pretty sure I’ve mentioned Wanderers in passing here before. It’s a big, sprawly, Stephen King-like tale of near-extinction, with lots of bad guys and biohazards and mystery. Honestly, I got a bit lost near the end, but that might be because I was listening to it rather than reading it. It was in some ways the airplane read I thought Station Eleven would be, but it is definitely a novel that nods hard at current people and situations, so it’s more than just dystopian horror. (Maybe there’s no such thing as “just dystopian horror” right now? )
To be honest, after some responses to my last post I feel a little hesitant to publish this one. Some part of me is always, constantly alarmed about what’s happening in our world (just as some part of me is always carrying low-grade stress about work), but another part of me is just fine, thank you. For real. Some days I’d give anything to feel a little pre-2016, and if I project too far into the future I can feel panicked, but right now, today, everything’s mostly fine, especially for someone like me (and probably many of you who are reading here). Although these books are about hard, dark, very grim circumstances, they help me see that even in the midst of those (far worse than most things happening in our world right now), there’s still joy and light and hope. People still want to–fight to–live. These dystopian tales help us understand why, which is probably the real point of them.
Thinking about what to write in this post, I searched out articles on toxic positivity, a concept that seemed to be everywhere for a hot minute last spring. Pretty much every article I found talked about the negative effects on an individual’s mental health from insisting on a positive attitude about everything, but I think there’s another (maybe greater) collective danger in relentlessly turning our gaze only to the bright side, or insisting that reality is only a matter of attitude: It keeps us from seeing things we need to see about larger systems and causes of suffering that exist outside of individuals.
As James Baldwin famously told us, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Extinction Lit–and all the youth activists begging us to pay attention to climate scientists–can help us face what’s in front of us and what’s coming at us. If nothing else, it can help us prepare for it, even if we can’t change it.
Leaving for work on the third Friday of the school year, I noticed my strawberry plants.
No, wait–that’s not quite right. I’d noticed them plenty of mornings before. They are directly in my line of sight when I walk out my back door to the garage. I’d noticed them drooping (and then browning and then shriveling) every morning, and every morning for at least two weeks I’d thought, I really need to water those when I come home tonight.
And then I wouldn’t. They weren’t in my line of sight when I came home, and even if I did remember them I was too tired/busy/late to do anything about it. (Or so I told myself.)
See, I had them hanging from the roof of my shed, which means that even though we had plenty of rain last week (thank you, weather gods), the poor strawberry basket didn’t get any because it was under the roof overhang. And the thought of dragging out the hose and giving it a drink of water–something I love doing in July–felt overwhelming in September. (See: tired, busy, late.)
I kept telling myself every morning that tonight, this night, I would water the poor thing. But I never did. And then, the third Friday of the school year I made myself go up close and really look at it to see if it could even be saved and then I beat myself up a little bit for letting it get so bad and then I wondered why I’m so lazy and can’t just do a better job of taking care of business.
Suddenly, lightening struck.
Not really, but out of nowhere I realized: I could just take the basket off the hook and put it on the pavement that doesn’t have any roof overhang covering it and the rain would water it.
No, it wouldn’t look as nice sitting on the pavement as it did hanging off the cute little shed roof. But half-dead wasn’t looking so nice, either. Wouldn’t it be better for the plant to be healthy in a less-optimal location than dead in a prime one?
For me, September has been multiple migraines, two rounds of antibiotics, 12+ hour work days, one sick day, fast food lunches, and lots of driving from school to school to school. (Last Thursday I never made it to my desk.) On the third Friday of the school year I finally paid attention to the strawberry basket, and looking at those dried up leaves and shriveled berries that could have been lush and plump–and that I might have eaten!–if only I’d stopped long enough to realize there was another way, I understood that, of course (of course!) this basket was a metaphor for every educator I know living through the month of September. (And most of the rest of them, too–but especially September, second only to May–not April–as the cruelest month.)
To suggest that all we need to do is somehow move our metaphoric basket to a place where we can get a little rain is not to ignore or dismiss or diminish the systemic and structural and resource issues that plague education and leave so many of us only half-alive by the end of the third week of the school year. But still, I’ve been wondering if there are things I might do to keep myself healthy that are as simple as moving my strawberry basket to a place where I don’t have to water it. And I’ve been reminded that we can’t just ignore our basic needs day after day after day because we’re too tired/busy/late to tend to them. Unless, you know, we want to end up like this:
Which doesn’t serve anyone. So, if you haven’t already–go water yourself this weekend! (Yeah, I know that sounds a little inappropriate. Or maybe I think that just because I’m surrounded many days by humans who love fart jokes. Whatever. Go take care of yourself!)
Last week I was reading a book written in 2010. It was, in many ways, a lovely book. In 2010, I might have found it rather compelling. It is about the aftermath of a tragic car accident in a small town in Maine, in which a bride and groom are killed on the short trip from their wedding ceremony to their reception. It is about how that event rippled into and through the lives of each of their family members.
Last week, though, I found it hard to care much about their career and marital crises, the permutations of their grief. One of the families is Jewish, and one of their members a Holocaust survivor. In the other family, a young Cambodian girl is an adopted daughter. The mother of the bride is a wealthy academic who lives in the town only during the summers; the mother of the groom cleans her house and scrapes by during the winters.
This book could be about so many things–and it is, tangentially–but what it’s really about is the grief of people who are living in America in the early 2000s, in which such issues as class difference, discrimination, trauma survival, and inter-cultural adoption are, seemingly, mostly tangential. At least to the narrator, and most of the characters. While those issues were present in the story, politics was not. No one was worried about modern-day detention camps. There were no suggestions that any of the characters should be sent back to anywhere. There was no homelessness or opioid addiction.
It felt like reading historical fiction. It felt like visiting a time and place that’s gone.
Apparently, the Federal Elections Commission, the federal agency that oversees compliance with election laws, is, for the foreseeable future, a moribund entity. In a week of terrible news (which means, a week not unlike most), this item chilled me. In order to keep functioning–go to work, feed myself, pay the bills, take care of what is mine to take care of–I have become largely numb to stories that once would have shocked and horrified me. Stories about harm to people and the planet. I am still horrified, but not shocked, and I quickly set my horror aside because if I do not I will not be able to function.
I shared the news on Facebook, something I rarely do with news any more (figuring that those who care already know and that those who do not care or cannot cope do not need me to share), but I shared it because I could not put that horror away as quickly as I usually do. Because I understood in the moment of experiencing it just how much I am hoping for a regime change in 2020. Because I understood that, increasingly, voting is the only power I feel I have, we have, and if that system is corrupt with nothing left to check the corruption, then that hope is gone. I understood how much I need that hope to function. And then, understanding that those who care already know and that those who don’t or cannot cope do not need me to share, I deleted it.
This spring Laura Mary Philpott published a book of essays called I Miss You When I Blink. I bought it because it was all over my social media feed and recommended by people I like and I loved one of the essays that I read from it. It is the kind of book I might write, if I were going to write a book. It is the memoir of a middle-aged white woman who has children and a decent husband and good marriage and economic security in America and, still (because she is human), encounters some difficulties being OK in her life. (It is not exactly a book I could write, not having had good marriages or the same kind of economic security, but, you know. Close enough.)
But as I was reading it, I thought: Huh. This doesn’t seem terribly relevant right now. I enjoyed it well enough, but I live in a small house with limited bookshelf space and so I donated it to a charity soon after reading it.
When I read it, I also thought: This is why I’m not writing. I just don’t see how I can have much that is important to say during this time we are living through. This is a book by and about and for people like me, and even I just don’t care that much about the existential crises of this writer, who seems like a truly lovely person I could likely be friends with. (She seems very nice and funny and thoughtful, but there’s an edge. All the people I love best have an edge.) I’m sure I would have cared more in 2010, or even 2015 (if 2015 hadn’t been a truly awful year for me personally), but today, in 2019? Not so much.
We recently had dinner with friends C. and T., and we realized we hadn’t seen each other since the Women’s March in 2017, which feels like years and years ago. I remember that along with the fear we carried that day, we also carried tremendous hope and even some joy. Look at all of us in the streets! Look at all our pink hats! Surely it can’t get that bad. Surely our systems will protect us! Surely we are all still Americans, this is still America!
In 2017, C. and T.’s Jewishness was tangential to our common story. I mean, it was an important fact. That C.’s parents were Holocaust survivors was an important fact. But it was not important to me in the way it is now, in 2019, and that’s not just because I’m not nearly as colorblind now as I once was (in, say 2010). Other facts–all the things we have in common, our shared interests and worries and values and hopes–were at the core of our mutual affection and regard.
As we sat after our lovely meal in 2019 drinking coffee and tea and eating delicious chocolate, I found myself thinking of Germany in the 1930s. I looked at my beautiful, lovely friends, he with his deep laugh and she with her expressive hands and gentle voice, and all the Holocaust stories I inhaled as a child–for they were, it seemed, everywhere if you were a child who read books in the 1970s–were instantly real in a way they had never been before. I lost my breath, disoriented, imagining the friends in my living room packed into a cattle car. I could not comprehend how such a thing could be possible, could hardly contain the horrors of it in my mind. The two horrors, which are not commensurate, but which are both terrible: That my friends could be packed into a cattle car and that I could have that thought about them at the end of our lovely dinner together because of the things happening now, here. I have never had such thoughts in the presence of Jewish friends at any other time in my life. Not, at least, in the same way I had them that night. And yet, my friends, if they had been alive in that time and in that place, they could have been on those trains, and for the first time in my life, instead of just understanding the horror of it, I truly felt it. And still, my mind went to: It’s not possible. Even as I know it is.
Was this how it was then, in mid-1930s Germany, for friends having dinner together? Of course, the cattle cars hadn’t yet started, none of what would follow had happened yet, so those earlier people could be forgiven in a way that we cannot for not knowing sooner the horror they were living in and through. I thought about how history repeats itself, but never in exactly the same way, which allows some of us to make the kinds of rationalizations we make for what is happening to people at our southern border. I know that many Germans, Jews and not-Jews, told themselves, even as the water approached boiling, Surely this is still Germany. We are still Germans.
Later, alone in the kitchen with T., she told me that C. is worried. Talked about wanting to leave. I felt the same disorientation, thought again of the books I once read, of how, when I was young, it was so hard for me to understand those Jews who didn’t leave when they could. The signs, in hindsight, were so clear. Now that I am not young, I understand all it would mean to leave a whole life and start over in a new place. I understand the barriers that one would have to overcome. I understand how it doesn’t feel real, the idea that the foundation upon which you’ve built that whole life–a foundation so seemingly sound you hardly realized it was there–could be crumbling.
But what I think and feel and understand from that evening feels inconsequential, tangential to the bigger story of what is happening all around me.
I recently also read There, There, Native writer Tommy Orange’s novel of the modern-day urban Indian experience. It was everywhere when it was published in 2018, all over my social media feeds for a while.
I picked it up and started it, but then I put it down and then it was due at the library, and I returned it without finishing it. I wanted my reading to be an escape. I still do. I felt like a shallow, weak person for turning away from it, but I did it anyway.
But this month I was working with teachers who are going to be assigning it to their students this year, and it is the Multnomah County Library’s Everybody Reads title for this year. So, I listened to the audiobook version of it. I listen to audiobooks in the car now. Not the news. Not even music. I consume the news in small, controlled doses now, mostly from print sources, and music does not occupy my mind enough when I’m driving. I don’t know if my inability to tolerate the space that opens up in my mind while driving is because technology has rewired my brain or because I cannot stand the questions my mind cannot leave alone these days. Probably both.
So, it was both escape and not escape, that book. It was gorgeous and heartbreaking and compelling and important. If it were a physical object in my house, I would make space for it on my bookshelf.
One of the characters, questioning what it means to be Native now, says: “I feel bad sometimes even saying I’m Native. Mostly I just feel I’m from Oakland.”
Another, reflecting upon his ancestry that is both white and Native, thinks:
“You’re from a people who took and took and took and took. And from a people taken. You were both and neither. When you took baths, you’d stare at your brown arms against your white legs in the water and wonder what they were doing together on the same body, in the same bathtub.”
Sometimes I feel I lived through a time in which most of us could, regardless of our history, mostly feel we were just from whatever city it is we called home. A time in which most of us, regardless of when and how we got here, felt ourselves both: part one thing and part something else. I used to think that was fundamental to what it means to be American. I don’t know, though, if that feeling is a sign of ignorance born of privilege or if it is true that we are now in a different time. Maybe we (Americans) are not losing anything now. I mean, I know that many, many Americans are losing a great deal right now. Maybe when I write “we” I mean people mostly like me. Maybe the only things we are losing are our illusions. I don’t know. There’s so much I don’t know now.
I miss feeling sure of things. When I try to define what it means to be American now, there is no there, there.
My daughter is making plans to move to Sweden, at least temporarily. I have been learning Swedish with Duolingo. I have been reading Swedish writers. I have been cooking recipes from Scandinavian cookbooks.
Yes, she had a wonderful experience with a study abroad semester, but it would be wrong to think that she is being swayed by some utopian fairy tale. She is a serious person. She was born serious. In the NICU, she was different from the other babies. She stared at everything, intently. “That’s really unusual,” one of the nurses told me. “The sensory stimulation is too much for most preemies. They look away. But she looks right into your eyes, all the time.” My mother told me, when my daughter was only days old, that she has an old soul. She has always made connections that others don’t, has seen beneath the surface of things. She has always been a careful planner. She loves a color-coded spreadsheet. She is pragmatic.
She came home for a visit in June. It was wonderful. As always, it was in being with her that I felt how much I miss her when she’s gone, how much I keep those feelings at bay in her absence. I am a person who connects deeply with only a few others, and she is one of my people.
After the visit this June, I understood in a new way that she no longer lives with me. I understood that she is likely not coming back here. I understood that she needs to decide where and how she can make the best life for herself. I understood why she feels that might not be here. I understood that here might not actually be the best place for her. I felt bereft in a way I have not felt since the day she left for college, and in exactly the same way: So grateful for the opportunities she has, and devastated that they cannot be here, where I am, and guilty for feeling anything other than happy for her. And also: Devastated that I cannot make the case that she could have a better life here. I mean, I know that, perhaps, she could. But it doesn’t look that way right now, in 2019. Especially if you are young.
“You know the joke about how to tell a Millennial from a Gen Z, right?” she asks me.
I don’t, I tell her.
“Millennials are the generation who grew up believing they’d have all the opportunities their parents had, and now they’re bitter because they’ve lost hope. Gen Z never had it.”
In a shop selling vintage wares, I found a book called Journalism and the School Paper, published in 1958. Of course, I had to read the section on the future of media, where I found this:
In the first half of the twentieth century the ideal of democracy was challenged by the philosophy of dictatorship. In the military struggle the democratic countries overcame the dictatorships of Hitler and Mussolini. In these years of the “cold war” the democracies likewise give evidence of being more flexible and durable than dictatorships. Democracy, however, could crumble through weaknesses from within as readily as from outside attacks. In communities where less than half the eligible voters turn out for an election, democracy is threatened.
The survival of democracy rests upon the free flow of information and exchange of opinion. Even in the United States, newsmen and newswomen have to be on guard against forces that would close the doors of information. Skill in writing and presentation will be required to show the relationship of various currents of news to the fundamentals of democratic life. For those whose talents fit them for a career in journalism, the opportunity is a challenging one.
Last week, Mary Laura Philpott published an essay in the New York Times called “The Great Fortune of Ordinary Sadness.” If it were a book, I would keep it on my shelf. I would put it next to There, There.
In it, she acknowledges the sadness she feels over the ending of her children’s childhoods, the ending of family life as they’ve always lived it, and she acknowledges the privilege inherent in such sadness, living in such a time as we are. When she describes feeling weepy in the grocery store, I recall my own episode of produce-driven tears, and for the first time I am grateful that I was able to experience it in 2016, when things were already bad, but not the kind of dumpster-fire bad they are now. I am grateful that I could feel it in a time when it felt OK to call it a big grief, rather than now, when it feels like it can only be, as Philpott writes, a “tiny, self-indulgent grief.”
But that is not why I would put the book on my shelf. It is for her closing words, the ones that let me know we really could be friends. The ones that made me think there might be some point to writing such as hers, and mine here:
And if you, too, are thinking “I thought I had more time” for any reason — a loss large or small or so eclipsed by refracted rays of joy that you’re ashamed to call it a loss at all — come cry quietly by the fruit with me.
We don’t even have to talk, unless … well, would you mind telling me to turn my oven off? It’s so easy to miss the moment when things begin to burn.
It is, isn’t it? So easy to miss the moment when things begin to burn. So important to have friends who remind us that the stove is on.
“I’ve missed your writing,” a new old friend told me the morning after a high school reunion. I think he asked why I haven’t been posting anything here, and I think I said something like, “I don’t know, not sure, life, busy,” but I don’t really remember.
Writing, for me, has always been a bit of a hot-cold thing. There have always been long periods when the words lie fallow. Earlier in my life, those times distressed me, but I came to accept that times of silence are just part of how it is for me. I don’t try to figure out what it’s about, something that became easier to do once I realized the dormancy wasn’t about laziness or lack of discipline or talent or anything I could construe as a character flaw. It’s something that just is, for me. Being able to be this kind of easy about what some might call writer’s block is one of the luxuries that come from not attaching this work to my livelihood. (Another way to look at it: Knowing this about myself is one of the reasons I made a decision not to attach this work to my livelihood.) Honestly, I don’t feel blocked. It’s not as if there are words rising behind some dam. It’s more like the stream has dried up. For now.
I do know, though, that the state of the world isn’t conducive to creative output from me. Last night I walked through a neighborhood I no longer recognize, so many of its modest bungalows and old shops replaced by shiny towers of commerce and soulless studio apartments, grey and white boxes that seem like the architectural equivalent of fast-fashion. In front of me was a 20-something white guy with a t-shirt that proclaimed “Fucked by Satan” in some obnoxiously loud font. He had a tattoo of a spoon on his forearm. He had a lot of tattoos, none of them artful, but that one stood out to me. Why a spoon? (Why not?, I suppose.) All around me were walls and noise and people with expensive shoes and posturing t-shirts and it was hard not to hate everyone and everything, including myself for being there. This feeling was not, of course, really about them.
Except, it also was. It was about all of us on Mississippi Ave. drinking over-priced drinks and artisan burgers in a food cart pod that rings a permanent deck and picnic tables and string lights, all of us kind of playing at being Portland-weird and funky and plain folks in a part of town that all of the plain folks who previously occupied it have been pushed out of while, you know, kids in the other Mississippi ended their first day of school sleeping on gym floors because their parents had been arrested at work for being brown in America. (Or, as we like to say, ‘Merca!.)
And the shootings, of course.
(What does it mean that we can write sentences such as that last one, shootings as afterthought, or as such a given they almost need not be mentioned?)
Writing–or any art-making–I think, is ultimately an act of love. We do it because we care about saying something that those we love might need to hear. Or to serve those we love in some way. It’s hard for me to make love when I feel surrounded by white guys in “Fucked by Satan” t-shirts. Or MAGA hats. Maybe that’s why I’ve been silent.
I know that when I’m having a “world is too much with us” kind of time, the standard antidote to is to get away from people for a while until I can see their beauty again. Or, at least, get away from the gentrified parts of Portland. (I think that last fragment contains a redundancy.) I know I should probably get my Wendell Berry on and go search for the peace of wild things. But it is hard to do that and not think about the rampant, unprecedented wild fires in the arctic. (Just when you think “And the shootings, of course” is the most outrageous sentence you might put in a blog post, one like that last one comes along to challenge that.)
It is hard to seek out nature and not think about the wild fires in Siberia and not think that perhaps the wild things would really appreciate it, perhaps, if fewer of us were practicing self-care and more of us were “taxing our lives with the forethought of grief” so that we might actually do some things to prevent the losses that could be prevented. Maybe we would if we knew what they were. Maybe there aren’t any things, really, and that is why we go out in stupid clothes and spend money stupidly on over-priced food and drink in pretentious settings. Or why I do.
The day after the reunion I visited the beach I always went to for solace and guidance during adolescence, and I realized that what was comforting about it was the sense I had not just of the water’s size–which put my worries and problems into perspective–but also of its permanence. Somehow knowing that the tide would continue to come in and go out long after I would be able to sit on the shore watching it do so helped me endure whatever I was having trouble enduring. I know the planet has never been fixed, that it is always changing, adapting, transforming. But. When I go to find the peace of wild things any more what I feel most is grief, the kind you feel when you miss someone before they’ve even left you.
So what I’ve been doing instead of writing is painting a bathroom (among other things). While I sanded obsessively to rid the door jamb of ridges of (probably lead-based, but honestly, I find it hard to care about that these days) paint, I listened to the audio book of Chuck Wendig’s The Wanderers, a Stephen Kingesque novel of a possible apocalypse. It was political and social commentary wrapped in a page-turner, profane and funny and frothy and deadly serious all at the same time. I truly disliked the performance of one of the narrators, but I listened to all 32 hours and 22 minutes of it just the same. (Deep ridges of paint. Paint that I should probably have just accepted as it was.) Sometimes there is solace to be had in sci-fi horror. It’s scary because the horror is rooted in what is real, but the world of the novel is so much worse than the one we’re actually inhabiting. Or, at least, it feels that way. Mostly. (I suspect the fictional white nationalists’ arsenals might be too spot-on.)
Anyway, I knew of the book because I read Wendig’s blog, which is profane and funny and frothy and deadly serious all at the same time. He has writtenmore than once about the need to create things in times such as these, difficult as it can be in such times because it is easy to feel that art is frivolous when there are so many, many fires (both literal and metaphorical) that we’d like to put out. How is a poem (or blog post) going to save the planet or house the homeless or pick up those children from school? It’s not. But, Chuck (and others, notably Toni Morrison, who died this week) argue that art is essential in times such as these, when we need to connect with our humanity and each other and keep ourselves whole. If you think about it too much (which I am wont to do), the whole thing becomes paralyzing: Both writing and not-writing can feel like self-centered indulgence.
But, as I wrote at the beginning of this ramble, writing or not writing is mostly not a choice for me. I can try to force it, but I’ve learned that doing so doesn’t really work for me. Still, I’m writing these words now, I guess, even though I didn’t really feel like doing it when I sat down at my computer this morning, because I want to say that if you are feeling off your game (whatever that game might be) and maybe not even playing it, that might be OK. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you are weak or lazy or overly privileged and just need to buck up and get to it. (I mean, maybe all of those things are true, but lack of productivity is not damning evidence of it.) We are living through a hard, shitty time, and most of us are doing the best we can. That’s not an artful sentence, but I’m pretty sure it’s a true one. I think it’s important to say things that are true, even if plainly is the only way we can muster to say them. Pay attention to what’s happening, and cut yourself some slack if need be. You’ll do what you need to, when you need to, when you can, as you can. Isn’t that what all of us are always doing?
I am writing these words now, I guess, as an act of love, both for myself and for you who are reading them. I don’t really hate you, even if it seems like I said I do. Not even if you’re wearing a MAGA hat, even though I really, really hate what you’re doing. You are kinda wearing me out and breaking my heart, but I don’t hate you. I am writing these words now, this morning because I tend to believe that love is more verb than noun, and connecting with our humanity is something we could all benefit from doing more of, and sometimes acting as if is the only way to make things so.
This is a catch-up post. An, “oh, crap–the blog’s been down for weeks and weeks (months?) and I couldn’t even fix that, much less write anything because: Life” post.
So, that’s not entirely true: I have been doing some writing, but on pieces bigger than those I usually post here. I might try publishing them somewhere else, eventually. But I might not. Hard to say.
Hard to say because I have decided that this stage of life is just one big, fat, second adolescence, with many of the same issues and questions: What am I going to do next? Who am I? Who do I want to be? How do I want to spend my time? (And what in the HELL is happening to my body?)
It is nicer than the teen-age go-round with such existential angst in that I have foundational answers to some of the questions. I know what I value and what I like and (most importantly) a whole lot of what I don’t need to tolerate or worry about. It’s a bummer that when I emerge from this transformative stage, unlike the earlier one, I can be pretty sure that my body is going to be in worse shape (rather than better) than it was going in.
Of course, I’m attempting to wrestle with all of these questions in the context of a world that feels increasingly unfamiliar and unstable. That is not what I long thought it to be. It’s hard to know what matters, really, when it comes to deciding how and who to be.
But, meanwhile, the days pass by and: Life.
Late spring and early summer was full of work and family and friends and thoughts and feelings–oh, so many feelings–about all of those things. About time, and love, and loss, and the meaning of life. It’s been huge, and also small. So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow, and all that.
Ah, who am I kidding? There is no catching up, not really. There’s just picking up–a thread, a conversation, ourselves. That’s all I’m really doing here. Picking up a thing I had to set down for awhile. Picking it up again so I don’t forget what I’ve got.
A few days ago Google photos sent me a little overview of the month of March. Back in January, I made a promise to myself to be more present in my days. To notice them more, so that when I got to the end of another year I wouldn’t feel as if they’d all slipped past me when I wasn’t looking.
I wrote a post at the end of that month in which I looked back over it, which was a way of noticing. The days had been short and some weeks even shorter, but the month looked long in the rearview, when I saw how many good things had actually filled its 31 days.
I meant to do the same at the end of February, but you know how things can go. And here it is nearly the middle of April (or it likely will be by the time I get this posted), but it’s not too late to look back at March. (You can do things like this when you’re making up your own rules as you go.)
I had one really big event in March–a trip with the women of my extended family to my great-grandparents’ first home in Croatia–but the rest of the month was full of a rather ordinary kind of good. The first bulbs poked their heads above ground. I ate a great deep-dish pizza at a library training in Chicago. I got to teach some kids how to use databases. My daughter sent me texts and snapchats that made me laugh. The bulbs grew, and I pulled weeds, and I went for a walk where I took photos of modest little houses for a project I started years ago and will likely never do anything with. I got scared by a spider (which wasn’t exactly good but made me laugh) and ate a great donut and then I took a plane (or three) to Croatia. The bulbs fully bloomed while I was gone.
It was a good month. It’s a good life.
The same day that Google reminded me about my month, I came across this article on living “a mediocre life,” which asks:
“What if I am not cut out for the frantic pace of this society and cannot even begin to keep up? And see so many others with what appears to be boundless energy and stamina but know that I need tons of solitude and calm, an abundance of rest, and swaths of unscheduled time in order to be healthy. Body, spirit, soul healthy. Am I enough?”
Solitude. Rest. Calm. Enough.
I’ve caught myself lately saying, “I’m turning into an old person,” in response to such things as being in bed on a Saturday night at 10:00 or really looking forward to eating German pancakes on Sunday morning at a neighborhood bakery. I say it as if doing such things and/or being an old person is a bad thing. But if healthiness rooted in the presence of small, everyday pleasures–as well as the absence of hangovers, headaches, and drama–is part of being an old or boring or mediocre person, well…bring it on.
We don’t ever ask the bulbs in spring if they are enough, or to be more than they are. We just let them unfurl (or not), and accept that whatever they do is what they were meant to do. We don’t curse the tulips and daffodils for being common or for needing certain conditions to grow. When we see them, we’re just grateful that they’re here, again, both testament and witness to another year, and that we didn’t have to do anything extraordinary to make them bloom.
Lately I’ve been wondering if the way we think of seasons as metaphors for our lives might be all wrong. What if the prime of our life is not summer, but winter? I spent a lot of the past two decades with my head buried, living my way through a lot of short, dark days, doing a whole lot of growing and energy gathering in an underground, crocus-ey sort of way. It was not a bad time, but maybe it was not the summer of my life. Maybe this, right now is the springtime of my life. My mediocre life.
You will find yourself, on a cold February night, at the end of a snow day in the middle of a long week, sitting in a basement wine bar that really isn’t much more than a hallway lined with small tables and chairs. At the end of that hallway there will be a wall draped with fabric and twinkle lights, which will pass as the backdrop for a small space that will pass as a stage.
You will find yourself there because one day a few weeks earlier you were looking up summer concerts and saw on an event calendar an act called The Lariza Sisters, and you remembered your former students Crystal and Angela Lariza, and how the last time you saw them, just after Angela graduated, they were playing their first music gig at a local coffee shop. You will have realized that The Lariza Sisters on the calendar must be the same ones who once sat in your English class talking about trying out for American Idol.
You can’t recall all that many of your former students, certainly not by name. There were literally thousands of them by the time you left the classroom, and most have blended into a singular monolith of memory, but there are some who remain distinct. Crystal, her friend Mary, and Angela are three of them. You still think of Crystal and Mary as CrystalandMary because you don’t remember ever seeing them apart, and it may be that you remember Angela, who was quiet and earnest and sweet, mostly because she was attached to CrystalandMary, who were loud and irreverent and sassy, but none of those things are the most important ones about either of them or why you’ll find yourself in that wine bar on that Wednesday night.
What will matter is that when you see The Lariza Sisters on the event calendar you’ll know you have to go because you remember them and their dreams and you want to see how both are playing out.
As it will turn out, The Lariza Sisters won’t be headlining that night because Angela will have recently decided to pursue “a different passion,” and Crystal will have joined a new band–but as luck will have it, Angela will be in the audience because it is Crystal’s birthday, and they will sing together for a few songs, and it will be all kinds of magical for you, like you were just meant to be there on this random weeknight so that you could see some things you need to see.
As you’ll watch Crystal sing with her new partner and talk about how their songs came to be written, you will feel awed, as you often are, by the creative pulse that beats in some of us, and the things we do in answer to it. Later, on a break, in the midst of talking with Angela about her decision to put music in the place of hobby rather than career, Crystal will tell you that she is 29 now and feeling the pull for a baby but doesn’t know how she can do that and music, and you’ll tell her the story of how your daughter, when she was 6, told you she never wanted to be a mommy because she always wanted her art to come first, and how you told her she could do both–make art and mother–and she said, “But you don’t, Mommy.”
As soon as the story leaves your lips you’ll wonder if you should have told it because you’ll never not be a teacher (even though you haven’t really been one for almost a decade now), and you’ll never not be an artist (even though you haven’t published anything for even more years than that), and you’ll never not be a mom (even though your babies just turned 21), and in the presence of these two young women you’ll feel a little bit like all three things to them, and you want to do right by them in each of those roles.
You’ll wonder what story you needed to hear when you were 29 and making the same kinds of decisions Crystal and Angela are making now. What kinds of stories you wish you’d heard. You’ll think about how it is all well and good for people past those decisions to say: Follow Your Passion! Make Art!–but that we all have real needs for food and shelter and love and there are all kinds of ways to follow your passion and make art. You know that now (but you didn’t then) and you’ll wonder if you should say that, too.
But there won’t be the time, and it won’t really be the place, and the moment will pass because you’ll all just be happy to see each other and laugh about the silly things CrystalandMary used to do and catch up just a little bit with what the past ten years have held for each of you.
Walking back to your car after the show, warm from the glow of wine and music and memories, you’ll wonder, as you often do, at how so few artists achieve what we think of as success, the kind that includes fame and fortune. “So many people have talent,” you’ll muse to your companion, who was also once your partner in teaching and everything else, and also, like you, an artist of sorts. “But you also have to have luck and timing and a certain kind of drive to make it like that,” you’ll say, thinking of the two of you and the choices you did and didn’t make. And you’ll wonder if Crystal and Angela know yet how many different kinds of success there are and that they’ve already achieved many of them. Thinking of your own successes and failures, and of all that you’ve won and lost, you’ll wonder what you should wish for, for them.
Later still, you’ll think about how these two were the last of your students; Angela graduated in your final year of teaching, and Crystal the year before that. You’ll feel such a pang, remembering those years, because you know nothing you do now feels as meaningful as what you were doing then–raising your children, building a family, loving a partner, teaching and knowing and caring for all the Crystals and Marys and Angelas. That you can’t remember each of your students now doesn’t mean they didn’t matter to you then.
You’ll think, Those were golden years, and part of you will roll your eyes at yourself for thinking such a sappy, trite thought and part of you will remember all the things that were not golden about that time–divorce and tight finances and worry and exhaustion and turning away from writing–and part of you will feel wistful and sad that you couldn’t see more clearly, back then, how much shine there was in your life.
Before you leave, Crystal will put in your hands two of her CDs, and for the next few days you will play them in the car. Instead of driving to and from work listening to the dreary news of the world or the banal chatter of radio DJs, you’ll lose yourself in the voice and strings and words of these women who once shared two years of their life with you, and you’ll marvel at all they’ve become.
You’ll know you can’t take credit for much of it. You’ll doubt that their ability to transform their lives into story and song has much of anything to do with anything they did in your class, but you’ll know that at least you didn’t kill it, that thing inside of them that sings. You’ll think of all the children who lose that–their wonder and their songs and their pictures and their words–and you’ll know that it’s not nothing, that you played some small part in keeping that alive.
You won’t be able to know what they get out of their creative work and whether or not it’s enough for them, but at the very least, you’ll think, they have put into the world something that is making a small part of yours brighter, and that light they’ve given you is something you can pass along to someone else, somehow. Maybe not in the ways you once did or hoped, but somehow. And you’ll turn up the volume, and keep driving, and look just a little bit harder to see what is shining right now.
You can hear some of Crystal and Angela’s music here. And here’s a song with Crystal’s new band that feels like a fitting end to this post:
When my kids were two, I decided–based on conventional parenting wisdom–that it was time for them to be potty-trained.
I did all the things a parent was supposed to do. I bought a potty seat. I read potty books to them. I talked it up. I took the kids shopping for big boy and big girl undies. I chose a date to begin–our first day of summer vacation. We were psyched and set.
In the first 45 minutes of Operation Potty they each went through 3 pairs of big boy/big girl undies–frankly, a urine output the likes of which I’d never seen–and I deduced that something in my approach was not working for them. “Should we try again another day?” I asked. They nodded their agreement with my new plan, and I think we were all relieved to know that I still had a good supply of diapers.
I decided to wait until they told me they’d like to try again. They never did. “Well, they won’t be going to kindergarten in diapers,” I told myself as we all went back to school that year, a mantra (adaptable to any number of issues) that got me through their toddler years.
Sometime that fall, the daycare ladies took over the job of teaching my children how to use a toilet. My daughter, from the get-go a lover of feedback, extrinsic rewards, and instruction from someone other than her parents, was highly motivated by and successful with stickers on a potty chart. My son, not so much. As that school year ended, several months past their third birthday, he showed little inclination to embrace his big boy undies, no matter which super-hero adorned them. He didn’t care about stickers or M&Ms or any other kind of reward.
“How come you don’t want to wear big boy undies and use the potty?” I asked one day in May. In complete sentences, he explained that he wanted to wear Pull-Ups because they did not require him to stop playing if he felt the need to pee or poop.
“Well, you have a really good point,” I conceded. “No one likes to have to stop playing to go to the bathroom.” I then explained that even though his reasoning made sense, he was still going to need to wear regular underwear like the rest of us.
“Why?” he asked.
Why, indeed? “Well, it’s just something we’ve all decided that people do. You can’t go to kindergarten wearing Pull-Ups,” I added. “They won’t let you.” Acknowledging the necessity of kindergarten, he agreed that he could not wear Pull-Ups forever, and that he might as well begin his life in regular underwear fairly immediately.
I asked him if we could choose a day that we could give up the Pull-Ups, and we reached a mutually agreeable one–the day we were to return from a family vacation in June. On that day he put on big boy undies and never looked back (and never had an accident).
This week those toddlers–my babies–turn 21. 21!
What strikes me most when I look back over the course of their lives is how constant their core selves have been. Although the particulars of their personalities and ways of being in the world are wildly different, both of my children act from places of reason, strong conviction, and a desire to meet goals that matter to them. I understood from their earliest days that I was never going to be able to bluff, bluster, bribe, or BS my children into anything they couldn’t see an authentic reason for doing.
What also strikes me, when I look back at the potty story and so many others, is my faith in both themselves and me. I took the conventional approach to toilet training, but when their behavior told me I’d likely misjudged something, I quickly abandoned it without doubting myself or worrying about anyone’s judgement. Maybe I was simply too tired from the physical crush of early parenting to put up much of a fight, but I like to think I had enough confidence in myself and my children that I didn’t worry about doing things differently from other parents. Once they entered kindergarten, I easily shifted my mantra to the next milestone: “They won’t be _____ in middle school,” I’d mutter when something wasn’t going for us the way it seemed to for others.
Later, when my daughter was in early middle school, she shared her opinion that a friend’s parent was “too easy,” and let her do things she shouldn’t.
I thought of all the things I allowed that many other parents typically didn’t and wondered if she was trying to tell me something about myself.
“Do you think I’m too easy?” I asked, half-wary of her answer. (“She doesn’t suffer fools gladly,” my mother has often said of her, and her judgments can be sharp.)
She thought for a moment. “No,” she finally said. “You’re strict about the right things.”
“What are those?” I asked.
“Mostly safety, I guess. I know there’s some things you’ll never cave on, so I don’t even try to get you to.”
Considering that this child had told me, when she was eight, that she’d realized that I couldn’t actually make her do anything, her perception of my parenting felt like solid-enough ground upon which we could make our journey through their adolescence together.
A time came, though, when that ground opened up beneath me, leaving my son on one side of a chasm and me on the other. Floundering in shock and fear, I lost faith and confidence in both of us.
Maybe I had been all wrong, I thought. Maybe I had been strict and loose about the wrong things. Maybe I should have been more like other parents. Maybe I’d been arrogant to think I knew best. Maybe I had failed him. Maybe I was failing her. Maybe I didn’t really know my son at all, this man-child who suddenly felt like a stranger much of the time. And did I really know her, or was another invisible-to-me fissure going to split wide open, leave me scrambling and clinging to the edges of what felt like an abyss?
“He’s still in there,” my mother assured me, more than once. “He’s still him. Just hold steady. You’ll both get through this.”
I wasn’t sure. Not knowing what else to do, I grabbed reflexively for the standard parenting handbook, even though much of it had never really seemed to work for my kids. Because maybe I had been wrong about that, too. Maybe I had just been too weak to do the difficult things parents need to do. I judged myself harshly and for the first time worried about the judgment of others.
My grip on him tightened, hard, as I tried to push him back into the shape of the person I’d thought him to be, the person I thought he was supposed to be. The tighter I grasped, the more he pulled away, and the harder I clutched in return. I’m guessing you can imagine how well that worked, for both of us.
It wasn’t until he was graduating from high school, when I was lamenting to a friend, a teacher at an alternative school, about how he’d completed his last class, that she gave me the first plank in a bridge to span our divide.
“It must have taken him a lot of strength to stand up to all the adults in his life,” she said, gently. “It sounds to me like he met the goals he set for himself, on his own terms, against a lot of pressure to do what others wanted of him.”
“That’s something really positive,” she added, looking straight at me. “That’s a quality that might serve him very well.”
And, suddenly, just like that, I could see him again.
I could see that the son I feared I’d lost had been there all along, and that he was not fundamentally different, really, from the pre-schooler who couldn’t see any good reason to wear big boy undies when Pull-Ups allowed him to meet a more meaningful goal than the one I’d set for him–when all he’d really needed from me was some validation of his priorities and some measure of control over his choices.
What if I’d been able to see and give that later, when the stakes were higher and the challenges more complex? What if I’d looked harder for options amenable to both of us, and allowed him some true choice in which ones to take? What if I’d stopped thrashing around in my pond of fear long enough to have seen that it was, after all, only a pond, and not an ocean, and that he wouldn’t be _____ when he was 21? How might things have been different for him, for us?
Of course, hindsight is 20/20, and the rear view is littered with coulda, woulda, shoulda’s. It was hard to know, at 17, where we’d be at 21. It was hard not knowing if he would be OK, if he would make it to 21. Some kids don’t. Had his story gone a different way than it has, I would probably have a different interpretation of….well, everything.
But it didn’t, and here we are.
When we birth a child, we are creating a new life not just for them, but for ourselves, too. All I really know, as I approach the 21st birthday of life as my children’s parent, is that I have been some combination of wise, foolish, and lucky. I know that the question of how we should best carry our children is a hard one to answer in the particulars, but that in general the answer is to hold on loosely–somehow both tight enough to keep them, but not so tightly that we kill the very thing we are desperate to protect.
As my children and I approach the end of our transition to adult parent-child relationships, my only true regret is that I didn’t understand sooner that my job wasn’t to make them fit into the world as I see it, but was instead to teach them how to navigate their world as the people they were born to be. I believe now that if we think we can make our kids into some image we have of who they should be, we are only fooling ourselves about our power. We are not those kinds of gods. And if we try to be, we risk missing the chance to truly know and love the complex and often confounding and profoundly gorgeous beings our children are, have been, and will always be.
Happy birthday to us, loves of my life. What a gift and privilege it’s been to mother you.